Searching for Ancient Civilizations in the Catskills

Catskills cairns

Glenn Kreisberg explaining his theories about a stone cairn found at Lewis Hollow near Overlook Mountain in Woodstock.

The rock formation was visible to the side of the trail as we crested a hill near Overlook Mountain in Woodstock: a craggy boulder sitting in the topsoil with a rock wall sinuously trailing behind it like a tail. The tail was wider at the ground and peaked at the top and extended a good 50 feet behind the boulder. If you followed the tail’s tip a couple minutes through the forest, you would come upon a nearly identical formation facing the other direction, its tail pointed at the tail of the first formation.

Glenn Kreisberg has a theory about these formations, two of about a dozen we saw on our walk through Lewis Hollow on the eastern edge of the Catskills. His belief — not accepted by the mainstream archeological community — is that they are the remains of a tribal civilization that existed in the area before European settlers overtook the region.

In his book, “Spirits in Stone: The Secrets of Megalithic America,” Kreisberg lists 19 different sites in the eastern Catskills containing rock formations such as cairns — circular stacks of rocks — both large and small, massive curving walls, rock chambers, and “serpent effigies,” like the two described above.

He said there were “in the neighborhood of a few dozen-to-50 sites” in the Shawangunks and Catskills, but that “we’re honestly just scratching the surface.”

Kreisberg believes the formations were part of the spiritual expression of this ancient civilization, a society with an advanced cosmology that gazed at the stars and tracked their movements.

“I believe evidence exists to support the theory that an ancient cultural group used the terrain and landscape of the Catskill and Shawangunk Mountains…to carry out astronomical observations and preserved the information by manipulating the natural terrain to create alignments between landscape features and man-made monuments,” he writes in the book.

Catskills cairns

The tail of a “snake effigy,” one of two at the Lewis Hollow site.

Kreisberg places this cultural group along with the Mayans, the Britons, the Egyptians, and other civilizations who engaged in astronomy before the advent of modern technology.

This civilization tracked the path of the sun during the equinoxes and solstices and the location of Thuban of the Draco constellation, according to Kreisberg, and created monuments correlating to these heavenly bodies. They built stone effigies of turtles and snakes and marked the location of underground waterways with cairns.

Spirits in Stone raises more questions then it answers, and, during my viewing of the site, which I took with ten others as part of Kreisberg’s regular tours, he admits freely there are many unknowns in his hypothesis.

“They have not been proven to be prehistoric,” he said of one of the formations, “but that’s the theory.”

Stone walls are everywhere in the Northeast. Kreisberg references a study completed during the 1880 census that found there were 240,000 miles of stone walls in the region. He believes some of these walls are commonly misinterpreted as being from European settlers and their descendants but were actually much older.

The stone formations we see on the Lewis Hollow tour and those in Spirits in Stone seem to beg for SOME interpretation. They are in the middle of the woods and often on mountainsides, as opposed to on arable land. The walls are curved and massive, as opposed to the straight, thin constructions used to separate fields or mark property boundaries. The Catskills cairns are well-formed, as opposed to just being heaps where rocks were thrown during the clearing of fields.

Kreisberg’s theories are not widely accepted by the archeological community; he admits as much in his book. He is certainly not part of accepted archeological academia, and, though he is the co-founder of the Overlook Mountain Center in Woodstock and serves as director-at-large for the New England Antiquity Research Association, he is not an archeologist by trade.

There are other theories about the origins of the rock formations.

In “Cairnfields in New England’s Forgotten Pastures,” a paper authored by Timothy H. Ives in the journal Archeology of Eastern North America, Ives writes the cairnfields have been misinterpreted by some (he includes Kreisberg’s New England Antiquity Research Association by name), and were instead the products of sheep pastures being cleared in the 1800s, pastures that were located in hill country and have since been overgrown after being abandoned during the collapse of the Northeast’s wool industry.

Joseph Diamond, a professor of Archeology at SUNY New Paltz, is aware of Kreisberg’s work and was emphatic when he stated Native Americans did not build with stone in the Northeast.

Catskills cairns

An undulating rock wall Kreisberg said was part of a pre-colonial civilization that lived in the Catskills.

Humans entered the area after the last ice age about 11,000 years ago, Diamond said, forming hunter-gather groups. As the Hudson Valley’s habitat progressed from tundra to boreal woods to forests with nut-bearing trees, the human population grew while groups became less transient, settling into a pattern of “restricted wandering” on seasonal routes.

By 1000 AD, the groups had settled into seasonal horticultural villages, farming the floodplains of the Hudson and Wallkill Rivers in the summer and retreating to the hills during the winters.

Diamond agreed with Ives’ theory about sheep pastures, adding he had come upon cairn fields and rock walls himself in the Catskills, but said they had a much more modern, mundane explanation than Kreisberg’s theories.

Some Woodstock residents believed the cairn fields were Native American graveyards, but human remains have never been found under a single one, Diamond said,

I asked Kreisberg why the mainstream archeological community doesn’t consider northeastern tribes to have built rock formations or engaged in astrology.

“It’s really kind of selling the ancient indigenous population in our region short,” he said.

The Dutch settlers of New York considered the native populations to be savages and devil-worshipers, and the continuation of this Euro-centric point of view has not helped in establishing evidence of proper civilizations in the region, he added.

The rock walls and cairns in question do not align with property boundaries, and do not seem to serve any functional purpose, Kreisberg said. Some of them can also be found in colonial records, such as of the Hardenbergh Patent of 1707, which Kreisberg said meant they pre-dated European settlement.

Many of the Catskills cairns, including several I saw at Lewis Hollow, marked areas of permeability in the ground, Kreisberg said, places with underground springs or rivers not far below the surface. Two cairns at Lewis Hollow were directly uphill from where a spring rose through the dirt.

Catskills cairns

Two carins at the Lewis Hollow site.

The purpose of marking areas of higher permeability was not to locate water sources for irrigation or drinking water, Kreisberg writes in his book — the Catskills are dotted with lakes, making the scoping out of subterranean water unnecessary — but was part of the native peoples’ religious beliefs.

Like many ancient peoples, the inhabitants of the Catskills viewed existence in three plains: the human plain, consisting of the ground we stand on; the underworld; and the skies above, according to Kreisberg.

Placing the cairns at areas of higher permeability was a way of marking the spots where there was less of a barrier between the underworld and the land of humans, according to Kreisberg.

The “serpent effigies” also followed this path, according to Kreisberg, who theorizes these were reconstructions of the constellation Draco.

The tribe’s larger focus on the skies was with the solstices, especially the marking of the winter solstice sunrise and the summer solstice sunset, which occur at opposite ends of the horizon, so a straight line can be drawn between the two points.

Kreisberg believes many of the sites in the Catskills orient along a straight line marking these events, called the Hammonasset Line (originally conceived by another researcher). He has mapped out the line in his book, which begins on the tip of Long Island and ends in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and some of the Catskill sites fall along it.

Diamond does not go for Kreisberg’s theory about the Hammonasset line.

“I see that as basically a whole series of things between Long Island and Woodstock that he’s linked together that have no relationship at all,” he said.

He linked the Hammonasset Line to “ley lines” — lines supposedly connecting ancient spiritual sites around the globe.

The scientific community rejects the concept of ley lines. The problem with ley lines is when there is an undefined set of data points — or an innumerable set — lines can be easily drawn linking them. If you throw 100 marbles on the ground, there’s no doubt you could draw a line linking three or four of them.

Whatever their origin, humans certainly constructed the Kreisberg’s formations, and there are enough in the Catskills and Shawangunks for you to form your own theory.

Tours of some of the sites described in Spirits in Stone can be booked by emailing Glenn Kreisberg here.

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